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Higher Love
Series: So That You May Come to Know the Truth — Gospel of Luke
Leader: Rev. David Thomas
Scripture: Luke 6:27-36
Date: May 7th, 2023
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“Standing on a London street corner, G. K. Chesterton was approached by a newspaper reporter. “Sir, I understand that you recently became a Christian. May I ask you one question?”

“Certainly,” replied Chesterton.

“If the risen Christ suddenly appeared at this very moment and stood behind you, what would you do?”

Chesterton looked the reporter squarely in the eye and said, “He is.”

About this story, someone has said, “Is this a mere figure of speech, wishful thinking, a piece of pious rhetoric? No, this truth is the most real fact about our life; it is our life. The Jesus who walked the roads of Judea and Galilee is the One who stands behind us. The Christ of history is the Christ of faith.”

We continue to celebrate pointedly the risen Christ.  We remember the words of the two men in dazzling white clothes who told the group of women on new life morning – “Remember what he told you when he was in Galilee?”  Remember what he told you.  We heard about the risen Christ making himself known in his Word.  We heard about the risen Christ making himself known/being revealed at a table.  We have heard about the risen Christ walking along beside us. “Christ with us” is really the thing that makes going back to Jesus' words (or going to Jesus’ words for the first time, for that matter) so different.  When we remember Jesus’ words, we are not remembering mere teaching, as if Jesus is simply someone with some information or advice to give.

The risen Christ is the power of God.  The risen Christ is the power of love.  Jesus is teaching here in Luke 6.  We call this The Sermon on the Plain, and it’s a lot like Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.  Not a sermon in the way we’re accustomed to hearing them, but a collection of Jesus' sayings.  Luke 6:17 – “He came down with them and stood on a level place.”  This is after he has chosen his 12 apostles.  “… with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.”  The message is about what it looks like to live life as his follower.  The message is for everyone.  The invitation is for everyone.  The geography of the setting itself is meaningful here.  The place is level.  In the kingdom of God, we all find ourselves on equal footing.  The kingdom of God is not about hierarchies based on gender or class or race, or socioeconomic status.  We all stand equally in need of grace and the mercy of God.  The level place also represents a firm foundation.  At the end of the sermon, Jesus will say that to hear his words and acts on them is like a man who built a house, dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock.  When a flood arose and the river burst against the house, it remained standing.  To hear and not act is like another man who built his house on the ground without a foundation.  Things fall apart.

Jesus is laying out a foundation of what Kingdom life is like.  Jesus is laying out what salvation means, what deliverance means, what grace (the unmerited/undeserved favour of God) looks like.  Salvation does not just point toward a distant future.  Grace is not simply an unattainable goal of which we think, “wouldn’t it be nice.”  Someone has said about salvation in Luke – “ (salvation) embraces life in the present, restoring the integrity of human life, revitalizing human communities, setting the cosmos in order, and commissioning the community of God’s people to put God’s grace into practice among themselves and toward ever-widening circles of others.”

What Jesus is doing in his Sermon on the Plain is not simply laying out a set of rules or a guide to good behaviour – a set of boxes for us to check.  Jesus is laying down a vision for the world that reflects who God is.  He’s laying down a vision for human interaction that reflects God’s vision.  The call to follow Jesus is a call to align ourselves with this man – an alignment that involves the totality of our lives.  All of our lives because this is the good and fitting and proper response in the face of God’s grace.

The women who came to the empty tomb on the first day of the week heard these words, “Remember how he told you while he was still in Galilee…”  He meant what he said.  The two disciples with whom Jesus walked along the Emmaus road remembered how their hearts burned within them as Jesus spoke.  The one who stands behind us and beside us and before us. So we remember Jesus’ words.  We’re still listening, and there’s significance in listening. 

“But I say to you that listen,” Jesus starts.  We’re still listening, and there’s significance in listening.  We’ve already heard Jesus speak about hospitality and generosity.  This same hospitality and generosity is to be applied to our relationships.  “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…”  Love your enemies frames this entire passage (v 27, v 35).  Who are our enemies?  Nationally?  Personally?  Those who disagree with us religiously/politically/socially?  It seems more and more in our society that we’re regarding those we disagree with as enemies or objects of hate.  Jesus turns this upside down.  We’re not talking about conjuring up warm feelings toward those who regard us with ill will. When we talk about and practice agape love in the Christ-following life, we talk about and practice love that seeks nothing but the other’s good.  I will seek your good, even when you hate me.   

There’s a novel by an American writer named Kent Haruf called Benediction.  All of his novels take place in a Colorado town called Holt.  In this one, a new firebrand preacher comes from Denver.  In a sermon, Pastor Rob Lyle admits to his congregation in a sermon on the text we’re looking at this morning how difficult it is to follow Jesus’ nonretaliation ethic: “We know the sweet joy of revenge. How it feels good to get even. Oh, that was a nice idea Jesus had. That was a pretty notion, but you can’t love people who do evil. It is neither sensible nor practical. . . . There is no way on earth we can love our enemies. . . . They’ll think they can get away with . . . wickedness and evil because they’ll think we’re weak and afraid. What would the world come to?” But the preacher continues: “What if Jesus wasn’t kidding? What if he wasn’t talking about some never-never land? . . . What if he was thoroughly wise to the world and knew firsthand cruelty and wickedness and evil and hate? . . . And what if, in spite of all that he knew, he still said love your enemies?”

What if?  What would that look like for us?  What would that look like in our world?  Remember his words.  Do good to those who hate you.  Bless those who curse you.  Pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.  From anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you, and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Then finally, do to others as you would have them do to you.

We’re invited to catch this vision.  In a world that so often says, “Respect me, and I’ll respect you.”  This is normal, right?  In a world that says, “Hit me, and you’ll regret it,” or “Hit me first, so I don’t get charged with assault.”  None of this is to justify allowing ourselves to be door mats or beaten up or counselling someone to stay in an abusive relationship because look at what Jesus says.  Jesus is talking about a vulnerability and generosity, which is foolish by the world’s standards (and I would add here, look where the world’s standards have brought us).  Followers of Jesus don’t reciprocate/retaliate or base our patterns of behaviour on those who would abuse/victimize/take advantage of.

We are not passive in all of this.  Quite the opposite.  The call from Jesus here is to respond with acts of love and mercy, and generosity which do not take into account reciprocation or retaliation.  Seek the good of those who hate you.  Speak words of grace in response to insults and curses.  Be lavish in our generosity toward those whom we might consider undeserving – and how exactly are we supposed to make the deserving/undeserving call anyway?  Someone has said, “This is no weak…capitulation… to oppressive forces; quite the contrary, it represents a bold move to stop the spiral of violent vengeance in the power of God’s love.”  In the face of one of the greatest evils of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had this to say, “When evil meets no opposition and encounters no obstacle but only patient endurance, its sting is drawn, and at last it meets an opponent which is more than its match. . . . Then evil cannot find its mark, it can breed no further evil, and is left barren. . . . Evil becomes a spent force when we put up no resistance [and refuse] to pay back the enemy in his own coin. . . . Violence stands condemned by its failure to evoke counter-violence.”

The Kingdom of God is an upside-down Kingdom.  Seeking nothing but the good for those who love us is fine – it beats the alternative, I suppose.  There is a higher love going on in the Kingdom of God, and isn’t our world crying out for a higher love?  “Think about, there must be a higher love,” is how Steve Winwood (and Whitney Houston and Kygo) put it.  Isn’t this what our world is crying out for?  An end to cycles of violence and retaliation and mere reciprocity and transactionalism, which pit us against one another from geopolitics to the morning commute, which leaves us enraged?  “Where’s that higher love I keep thinking of?” as the song goes.

He's behind me.  He’s beside us.  He’s before us.   The one of grace.  The one of unmerited good, of undeserved favour.  Jesus is the one who calls us to his table.  Our family table.  Jesus is the one who calls us to take on the family resemblance.  You know what it’s like to meet someone, and the family to which they belong is unmistakable.  “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.”  The one we are invited to follow.  The one we are called to welcome in.  The one who did not retaliate when he was struck.  The one who loved us when we were his enemy.  The one who is good to all, who has compassion on all he has made.  The one who came running to meet us when we were far from him. 

The call to a higher love is the call to a love that doesn’t exist in this world without the one who invites us to his table.  To come as a child of God is to not just be forgiven but to gather together as part of an ongoing process in which we are ever more coming to reflect God’s grace, forgiveness and mercy to the world in every interaction – in all we say and do.  May this be true for all those who are listening today and gather around the family table.